Blue Jasmine (2013)

She Didn’t Have a Heart to Leave in San Francisco

In the heyday of Woody Allen’s career, he alternated between large epic films about men grappling with moral crises, and smaller films about women suffering the impacts of such men’s behaviors. For example, in 1989’s Oscar nominated Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen’s camera recoils in existential horror as Judah (played by Martin Landau) gets away with the murder of his mistress, living in cold indifference to his own act of evil. This feted film followed the tragically neglected Another Woman, a moving feminist version of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries about Marion (played by Gena Rowlands) coming to consciousness about her husband’s inhumanity.

Now over 20 years after the Soon-Yi Previn scandal that threatened to destroy the career of the most talented living American filmmaker, Allen has finally combined these threads, creating a truly significant portrait of a fully tragic female character, Jasmine (played with astonishing rawness by Cate Blanchett). We come to see the moral and emotional bankruptcy of the wife of a Bernie Madoff figure from her point of view. Like Harold Pinter’s anti-romance play, Betrayal, Jasmine’s collapse is presented to us in the present, but filled with jarring flashbacks to her masters of the universe life before the fiscal collapse.

The film’s aggressive narrational structure most reminds one of Annie Hall, that 1970s masterpiece in which we see the collapse of Annie’s relationship with Alvy in chaotic spurts of memory. Rather than the stock Hollywood romantic comedy where boy loses girl and then wins her back, Annie Hall reverses this tradition via George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion: Alvy wins Annie by teaching her, but she learns is that she deserves better than him.

However, the most interesting relationship between Blue Jasmine and Annie Hall is a geographical one. Allen’s new film represents a shocking return to the United States, after a sequence of films replacing his formerly beloved New York City: 2005’s Match Point, for example, is set not in Manhattan but London. The very titles of three other recent Allen films: To Rome with Love, Midnight in Paris, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona emphasize this shift from New York to Europe. In Blue Jasmine, Allen continues to exorcise New York City from his filmmaking palate. With Manhattan and Annie Hall in the 1970s, Allen was confident in the superiority of New York City to all other places in the world. When Alvy’s television writing partner moves to Los Angeles, Allen bars no holds as he demonstrates what a horrid, vacuous place California is, with its horrible movies (Exorcism of Blood) and sit-coms filled with fake laugh tracks.

Blue Jasmine is a post-New York film. The story begins with Jasmine and her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) on the top of their game, moving between fancy Manhattan apartments and beach resorts in the Hamptons. However, Hal turns out to be a crook, having lied and cheated to fund this lifestyle. With her husband having hung himself in jail, Jasmine has no alternative but to move to San Francisco to live with her working class sister. Thirty-six years after Annie Hall, California no longer represents superficiality. Instead, New York does not even exist in the present tense, having been destroyed in the maelstrom of the financial meltdown.

This geographical observation, I think, unearths a shocking intertext for Blue Jasmine. Many critics have noticed the relationship between Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine and her skillful enactment of Blanche DuBois in a well-traveled 2009 Sydney Theatre Company production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. However, there is nothing Southern—neither Tennessee or New Orleans—about Jasmine, as phony a Manhattanite as the debutantes in J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye. No, for me, the character with whom Jasmine seems most to resonate is James Stewart’s Scottie from Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece is the cinema’s heretofore most famous mapping of San Francisco onto American gender trauma. Scottie’s masculinity is destroyed by a ruthless businessman, conned and buffeted from his home in North Beach, home of the 1950s Beat revolution, to the Golden Gate bridge, and finally to the mission tower at San Jaun Bautista down Highway 101. Jasmine is destroyed by a different businessman, but to the same effect, evacuating her ability to make sense of the world. At least Scottie was able to fish Madeleine out of San Francisco Bay. When Jasmine’s hope to marry a rising politician from Marin County is dashed, she takes to the streets mumbling; only the stationary camera is left to witness her. Boy, did Woody Allen ever find a great place for a homecoming, and 3,000 miles to the west of where it would have been expected.

– Walter Metz